Hike for Mental Health

Western Kenya LBQT Feminist Forum meetup in Kakamega forest

I attended the “Hike for mental health” event organised by Western Kenya LBQT Feminist Forum today.

I didn’t know Kisumu had an active grassroots-led LGBTQ group! When I came across the event on their Facebook page announcing a hike in Kakamega forest followed by a “vent session”, I immediately reached out to them.

As a cis Indian man in Kisumu, I was a bit worried I would come across as an intruder at an event led by Kenyan women when I met the group at the pickup point, but everyone was welcoming and I felt comfortable pretty quickly. I talked to many folks as we hiked through the forest, falling back from the group as people started opening up about themselves. I’m so overwhelmed and touched by everyone’s openness and willingness to be vulnerable in the company of strangers - People spoke of taking in many queer people who were kicked out of their homes when their families found out that they were queer during COVID lockdown, even though they were financially stretched thin themselves, reaching out to willing pastors to encourage them to avoid preaching against homosexuality and alienating (or worse, vilifying) vulnerable individuals in their congregations, being accused of trying to “convert” a heterosexual adult and dragged to a police station (It breaks me to think of the violence they must have experienced at the hands of the police), the everyday brutality of verbal abuse from Internet strangers on social media for being unapologetically queer, and the desire to create a safe space, both physical and mental, and using hikes as a way to allow queer people to speak freely as the small group hopes to mobilise funds to rent a physical space for a safe space and LGBTQ wellness centre.

On a personal note, for as long as I remember, I have struggled with my mental state, experiencing anxiety attacks, extreme mood swings, and withdrawing from the world for weeks at a time. Early this year however, I finally met with a psychiatrist, received a diagnosis and have been on medication that has made me feel like I’ve unlocked what I imagine “others” must have enjoyed throughout their lives - a stable state of mind! In a way, it feels like I’ve spent this year in isolation, looking inward and building up my strength to engage with the world. I could not have come across Kisumu’s fledgling LGBTQ group at a better time - I feel ready to put my energy to use for causes that are important to me, and the prospect of joining and supporting people who have been able to do so much with limited resources makes me happy.

P.S: If you’re able to support the organisation financially or otherwise, please get in touch with the organisers through the contact information on the Facebook page.

Fever Pitch

I spent a couple of blissful months unaware of the happenings of the world, cut off from my muscle-memory visits to The Guardian, Hacker News, Google News and a dozen other websites as I wait for my code changes to build. When I first stopped reading the news, I thought I’d miss being out of the loop and “relapse” pretty quickly, but I managed to hold off for about three months. Towards the end of it, I dipped back every week or two, mostly to know how COVID was ravaging the world and whether I’d be allowed back into India (Has any other country ever shut down all international flights and refused entry to its own citizens?), just in case that became a necessity. I even managed to read more long-form articles (Thanks Aeon!) and books, since there was a surprisingly big chunk of free time that I would have otherwise filled with news.

All of that came crashing down with Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death last month, and the imminent US election. The anxiety of not knowing what was happening out there quickly exceeded the anxiety I felt when I tried to keep up with the news. I can’t think of a time when so much has hung in the balance of an election - The US is set to withdraw from the (non-binding!) Paris climate agreement in November, and those who wish to trample upon women’s rights are surely emboldened by the recent anti-choice declaration led by the US and of course, the coup de grâce, RBG’s replacement.

I’m really looking forward to cutting news out of my life again, but I cannot imagine skipping the news first thing in the morning for the next two weeks.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I struggled with last weekend’s news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death.

Even though I have nothing whatsoever to do with the US, I remember feeling grateful and wildly optimistic as I followed along RBG’s championing of same-sex marriage rights at the US Supreme Court in 2015. For better or worse, America (yet?) wields enormous influence over the rest of the world, and that verdict seemed to pave the way for a lot of queer activism around the world. India’s Supreme Court striking down a section of a British-era law in 2018 that criminalized homosexual activities seemed to be a continuation of that wave of progress.

Reading RBG’s powerful dissents have often been a reprieve in an otherwise bleak decade, especially when I was in Poland as the Polish government tried to pass a total ban on abortion. Sisyphean though they might have been given the conservative majority in the US Supreme Court in recent years, it was refreshing to know that there was still room in the world for well-reasoned counterarguments and respect for diversity.

I can’t help but wonder how devastating it must be to pass away knowing that everything you stood for, everything you worked towards for decades, was never at greater risk of being destroyed at the hands of totalitarians in all but name. Is that when you truly grasp that “every generation must fight the same battles again and again” and hope that you’ve nudged the needle of progress forward at least a little bit? I just read the progressive Kannada author U R Ananthamurthy’s ಹಿಂದುತ್ವ ಅಥವಾ ಹಿಂದ್ ಸ್ವರಾಜ್?, his final work before his death in 2014 that chronicles the secular or religious Indian identity that newly independent India had to choose between in the last century, and how that planted the seed for Hindu nationalism in present-day Indian society. Written at a time when Modi’s election-winning vision of an unabashedly Hindu nation found many takers, it reads like a breathless lament for the hard-fought progress that might soon be dismantled.

I know, I know that we’re making progress on a lot of fronts, even if that sometimes just means having conversations about things that might have gone unnoticed a few years ago, but when I hear of the death of someone as pivotal as RBG to social change in recent memory, I find myself thinking that the walls are closing in as the steady drumbeat of fascism’s march to power across the world gets louder, and can’t help but feel despondent.

I suppose all you can do is pick your battles, stay the course and hope that it makes a difference.

Thank you, Duchess of Krakenthorp

Gardening during COVID

Hello!

It’s been a while, and I’m trying to get back to blogging.

I’m alive and well, and I’ve spent most of this year in Kisumu. I was in Kisumu when countries started restricting international flights, and I just couldn’t decide whether to go to India or elsewhere, so I stayed put.

In hindsight, it was a great decision. I took over the office compound, which felt like an island, cut off from the realities and rapidly rising daily statistics of the outside world. The compound also has lots of space, and since I’ve always harboured ideas of living on a self-sustaining farm one day, I took up gardening.

The first order of business was to eliminate food waste from garbage. Burning is the predominant method of waste management in Kenya, and it’s sadly quite common to see plumes of smoke in the evenings as people set their garbage on fire.

I remember reading about compost circles (but I can’t seem to find any reference to it online!) and decided to use one for composting. A compost circle is a circle that’s about half or one-foot deep (depending on the amount of food waste your household produces) that you fill with your food waste. If the circle is big enough, it should take you about 6 weeks to complete a full circle, by which time the first section of the circle should have turned into fresh compost. It’s a great, continuous source of compost for your plants

Digging a compost circle

With food waste covered, it was time to make sure I had a source of fresh vegetables - I dug two patches of about 2m X 3m, and planted green beans (I found a dried-up plant elsewhere within the compound and used the dry, pearly black seeds in pods, unsure if they would grow, but grow they did), cucumbers and tomatoes. It’s astonishing how quickly beans grow and how resilient they are to poor watering and intense sunlight - While the tomato plants drooped and wilted if they weren’t watered abundantly everyday, the beans seemed to flourish. Within a month, the bean plants had flowered and produced sweet, fresh beans. I’d take a break after work meetings in the evenings to water the plants and snack on young beans fresh off the plant 😍

The cucumber plants started off well, but the leaves turned yellow and the tiny cucumbers whose growth I was so excited to monitor everyday died on the vine before they could ripen. I realised it was a mistake to plant them in a spot that received sunlight for at least eight hours everyday - While the beans and tomato plants loved the direct sunlight, I believe cucumbers like the shade. Talking to a friend about the cucumber situation, I learnt there are insects that burrow into the soil and destroy the roots of cucumber plants. I did not get to confirm this because the cucumber plants were already too far gone.

Fresh green beans and the late office dog Kike, patiently waiting for treats

I purchased tomato seeds of a variety called “Rio Grande”. I’m not sure if it’s true of tomatoes in general or the variety I tried, but tomato plants need a lot of love! Careful, plentiful watering at a consistent schedule, trellis/support, and more susceptible to diseases.

Fresh tomatoes

Gardening is such a joy, and I’m so glad I had the opportunity and the space to experiment with it. For a few years now, I’ve been thinking about finding a piece of land somewhere, growing my own food, if only just to feed myself, and living the life of a hermit in an environmentally sustainable way. COVID lockdowns gave me an opportunity to test that lifestyle, and I’m more confident now that I can swing it!

Hey Big Tech, Support Regional Languages!

A few months ago, I bumped into someone who was using Kannada as their system language on their iPhone. Curious to find out Android’s support for languages that are not English, I switched my system language to Kannada as well and was pleasantly surprised to find nearly everything on stock Android in Kannada. The app ecosystem on the other hand is a different story.

Uber and Ola, India’s leading taxi apps, don’t seem to care about regional language support - While Ola makes no attempt to support use in Kannada, Uber’s attempt at Kannada internationalization seems to be an afterthought, with entirely broken screens.

Why support regional languages?

  • Barrier to entry - As a person in tech, with friends who work in or take an interest in tech, it’s easy to forget that using technology is hard for a lot of people. Adding a language barrier into the mix makes it worse. English is intimidating to a lot of people, especially in India. Anecdotally, I’ve had relatives tell me that they’d really like to be able to use taxi apps to move around, but they’re afraid of selecting the wrong location or ordering the wrong class of taxi (resulting in memorising the flow of taps 🤦). There’s an argument to be made about better UI/UX, but I think interfaces that are exclusively in English become a barrier to entry.

  • English is not inclusive - The history of English in India is steeped in colonialism (well, duh!), casteism, and elitism. Walk around in any “second-tier” city in India, and you’ll see advertisements for a multitude of companies, schools and websites offering to teach you how to speak “fluent English”. The clamour to learn English is of course driven by its employment potential, but I’d argue that it has to do with caste and elitism as well. Indian society places a high value on English fluency, and apps are silently reinforcing the discrimination that comes with it.

  • Content availability is a problem - There’s a classic chicken-and-egg (could not find an equivalent vegan expression!) issue at play - Platforms don’t have support for regional languages, and there’s not enough regional language content to make it worthwhile for platforms to support them. It looks like Amazon is yet to support Kannada content on Kindles! For now, you have a choice from as many as TWO Kindle eBooks if you search by language. TWO!

  • $$$$ - Okay, fine! I’ll stoop to appealing to capitalism - Companies are leaving money on the table by making their products and services inaccessible to a lot of people! Think about the growth potential, the happy investors, those beautiful graphs in upswing!

  • Because squiggly letters are awesome! ದಯವಿಟ್ಟು ನಿಮ್ಮ ಫೋನ್ ಹಾಗು ಕಂಪ್ಯೂಟರ್-ಗಳಲ್ಲಿ ನಿಮ್ಮ ಭಾಷೆಯನ್ನು ಉಪಯೋಗಿಸಿ

What can you do?

  • Strength in numbers - Don’t be an elitist, prop up regional language numbers by switching your system language on your device(s)
  • Contribute translation strings to open-source projects! I started contributing Kannada translations to Signal Messenger’s Android app, and it’s surprisingly fun and very satisfying to see the number of untranslated strings go down on every submit :)
    • Find open-source projects that could use your help at Weblate
    • Join (or create) a GNOME internationalization team here
    • Contribute to Mozilla’s apps and websites
  • Lobby governments to mandate the availability of regional languages (perhaps in addition to other languages?) on government websites. In 2019, governments paying third parties taxpayer money to build websites that lack regional language support is like building footpaths that are not wheelchair-friendly - egregious and just plain criminally negligent!